What are the best screenwriting books on the market, why are they the best, and what specific knowledge and experience can screenwriters take away from them?
Knowledge is power and the first — and ongoing — step that screenwriters should take when they embark on their writing journey is to read and study the art, craft, and business of screenwriting.
It’s not about finding tricks, shortcuts, and secret formulas. No book that we list below is the be-all, end-all way to write a screenplay. There is no one way. Reading screenwriting books is about searching for wisdom, experience, knowledge, tips, and instruction that can help you hone your own style. You take what stands out to you the most and add it to your “toolbox” that you’ll use as you go on to write your own.
The collected content of one book may showcase a full approach that best fits with your process. Another book may only have a single nugget of advice, but one that solves a common problem you’ve been struggling with.
So this list is not about finding the one way to write your next screenplay — it’s about a collection of knowledge that you should study, consider, and then possibly adapt to your own writing process, whether you’re using a lot or a little from each and every screenwriting book you read.
Here are some of the best screenwriting books that all screenwriters should take a look at.
Oldies but Goodies
The Hollywood Reporter once called the late Syd Field “the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, his internationally acclaimed best-selling books Screenplay, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver once established themselves as the “bibles” of the film industry. Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook in particular are in their fortieth printing and are used in more than 400 colleges and universities across the country and have been translated and published in 29 languages.
But it was during the screenwriting boom of the 1990s that this book, Four Screenplays, stood out most. Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2, The Silence of the Lambs, and Dances with Wolves were pinnacle movies from the 1990s and it was a thrill to see the guru behind Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook examine the scripts of those popular films and break them down for screenwriters to learn from.
While some of the information might be a little dated, the analysis of these four classic films and their screenplays should be studied by all. It will help you take what you learned from those films and their scripts, and teach you how to analyze other films as well as you continue to hone your craft.
Lew Hunter is chairman Emeritus and Professor of Screenwriting at the UCLA Department of Film and Television. Over half of the Oscar-winning scripts over the past twenty years have been written by students of Hunter. He is commonly referred to as the best screenwriting teacher in the United States.
Steven Spielberg once called Hunter “the best screenwriting teacher going.”
This book is often forgotten among the others that have come along, but remains one of the finest examples of screenwriting instruction. If you can’t enroll in UCLA screenwriting courses, this is the next best thing. You’ll learn the basics of structure, as well as Hunter’s own theories on cinematic storytelling. If you’ve ever wanted a classic screenwriting textbook used in an acclaimed film school, this is it.
“The single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Not one person knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” — William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter and bestselling author William Goldman is no guru; he’s a screenwriting legend that has written some of cinema’s greatest features — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, and many, many more. He later became Hollywood’s go-to uncredited script doctor as well.
This was one of the first books that offered a personal view of not just the screenwriting trade, but working in Hollywood.
While some of those Hollywood anecdotes are dated by today’s 21st century standards and practices, perhaps the best takeaway for screenwriters is his breakdown of adapting screenplays from novels and other source material — detailing how to choose what to adapt and what not to adapt. He also includes the entire screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and uses it as a teaching tool.
Lesser Known Gems
It’s one thing to learn from a single point of view — be it a screenwriting guru, professor, instructor, or award-winning screenwriter. This book offers screenwriters the chance to learn from many of the industry’s biggest and most successful Hollywood screenwriters.
Screenwriters interviewed include: Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Amy Holden Jones (Indecent Proposal), Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies), Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), and Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo).
Some of the opinions and perspectives will resonate with you and your process, others will not. The variety is the key.
This book is one of the most underappreciated screenwriting books in the business. Written by Denny Martin Flinn, an experienced studio script reader, the book details the common rookie mistakes that drive script readers crazy.
Screenwriters must always remember that early on in one’s screenwriting journey, you’re writing primarily for script readers — interns, assistants, story analysts, competition readers, and yes, studio script readers. It’s a vital part of the process to learn the little mistakes that these people see over and over and over as they read hundreds of screenplays. You want to keep them happy, don’t you?
We’d be remiss not to mention ScreenCraft’s own, which features essays, articles, and collected thoughts edited — and often written — by ScreenCraft’s own Ken Miyamoto, where he offers the general guidelines and expectations of the film and television industry when it comes to screenwriting.
It’s one thing to learn from those sitting at the top of the totem pole; it’s another to learn a more realistic and street level approach from someone that has been on both sides of the Hollywood table — in development as a studio script reader and as a blue-collar, produced and working screenwriter still in the trenches — who knows the current trials, tribulations, and goings-on for screenwriters trying to break through.
The book offers a more contemporary and ground level take on the art, craft, and business of screenwriting.
From the Mouths of the Masters
Sometimes it’s great to learn from somebody else’s journey — what to do and what not to do. While William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade offers an excellent perspective, he’s at the top of the totem pole when it comes to screenwriters. What about those who have seen both ultimate success and ultimate failure or sidetracks? What about those who may not be as heralded, but have proven their worth with consistent Hollywood deals?
Whether you view M. Night Shyamalan as a has-been or comeback kid (with his well-received and successful Split), few can argue that his screenwriting — and directing — hasn’t breathed life into the thriller and horror genres in recent years; it has. With his early works like The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, and Unbreakable, Shyamalan made an art of engaging audiences through to the final climax, whether they liked the surprise endings or not.
This book has writer Michael Bamberger profiling the auteur with in-depth interviews straight from the source as Shyamalan talks about his writing process, the mistakes he’s made, and how his promising career took a hit when he clashed with studio executives.
You will close this book with a little insight into one of the most interesting cinematic storytelling minds of the last three decades — and having learned a thing or two about engaging audiences, surprising audiences, and maneuvering through the studio system as a storyteller.
The title of this book says it all. Joe Esztherhas is one of the most polarizing personalities in Hollywood lore. He made a fortune with big seven-figure screenwriting deals through the 1990s. He wrote one of Hollywood’s biggest hits during that decade — Basic Instinct — and also one of its biggest bombs — Showgirls.
It’s a very opinionated piece, written directly by himself, as he details his writing process and goes into various rants and raves about Hollywood, screenwriting, and the individuals within.
This book may be the ultimate cautionary tale of how not to be, but anyone would be a fool to disclude the observations he makes and the lessons to be learned from both his successes and failures as a screenwriter and Hollywood persona.
Hollywood screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon’s movies have made over a billion dollars at the box office. Despite that fact, it’s more than likely that you’ve probably never heard of them by name.
This book will give you insight into the highs and lows of being a working screenwriter in Hollywood. You’ll learn the art of pitching, how to get your foot in the door, how to take notes from big names in the business, how to ensure that you get the right credits and royalties, and yes, how to get fired and even rehired.
This is perhaps the best, most honest, and most hilarious insight to how it really is to be a working screenwriter.
The Most Celebrated
Chris Vogler is a development guru that has worked for Disney studios, Fox 2000 pictures, and Warner Bros. He has also taught at USC, Division of Animation and Digital Arts, and through the UCLA extension courses.
This is the definitive book that takes mythology and The Hero’s Journey and melds it into the context of screenwriting. If you’re writing a hero-based fantasy, action, or adventure script, it’s a must read. However, the hero’s journey isn’t applicable to all screenplays and protagonists.
Read Screencraft’s Is Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” Dead in Screenwriting Today? and Why Screenwriters Should Embrace The Heroine’s Journey for more on mythology as applied to screenwriting.
Like any dictated formula or story structure theory, there is no one true answer and it often seems like many screenwriters treat this book and others as such. This is just one of the structures that you can either fully employ, or adapt to whatever you already have floating around in your mind.
Regardless, there is a plethora of great information that you can apply to your own stories and protagonists.
Robert McKee is not just the king above all screenwriting gurus — he is the Zeus equivalent himself. Hollywood stars, writers, producers, development executives and agents attend his lecture series, praising it as a mesmerizing and intense learning experience. And yes, McKee’s theater presence truly does stand-out as a powerful performance, all of which was nodded to so brilliantly in Charlie Kaufman’s script for Adaptation.
His book is an expansion of his seminar’s concepts, offering the most detailed look into story structure and every aspect of the screenplay itself. What’s wonderful about Story is that while it does go deep into structure and what elements cinematic stories need, there is never a direct “formula” that McKee is advising anyone to apply. Instead, we are getting clear and well thought out ruminations on story, character, and conflict for all to consider.
Read ScreenCraft’s Exclusive: One-On-One With Robert McKee!
Blake Snyder was a celebrated moneymaker screenwriter during the boom of the 1990s, selling many spec screenplays — some of which were made, including Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check. In 2005, he wrote this book with the title originating from one of his doctrine concepts: “The ‘Save the Cat’ scene is where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”
The book is perhaps most famous because it claims to offer a specific formula to success, in the form of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, which details a formula of fifteen story and character moments and the pages that they need to be on.
While it’s clear that there is no one secret formula to a successful screenplay, the book manages to give screenwriters an excellent overview of possible beats that could be explored in certain areas of a screenplay.
While the book has since become a polarizing educational tool for screenwriting — with some thinking it’s hogwash while others swear to its credence — it truly is one of those must-read books as food for the brain.
Read Screencraft’s How Rocky Debunks the Screenwriting Guru Book Save the Cat!
This celebrated book is one of the most popular, authoritative, and useful books on the art, craft, and business of screenwriting. David Trottier takes you through the whole process of screenwriting, from start to finish and then into marketing, screenplay contests, etc.
The greatest thing about The Screenwriter’s Bible is that it offers only the things a screenwriter truly needs — the guidelines and expectations of the industry. You will find no secret formulas to success in this book. Instead, you’ll find everything you need to begin your screenwriter’s journey.
Read ScreenCraft’s One-On-One with The Screenwriter’s Bible Author Dave Trottier!
Dark Horse Pick
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the best writing resources that any writer can get their hands on — even screenwriters. While King’s wise words are written primarily in reference to writing literature, many of his now famous quotes from the book can be easily applied to screenwriting.
Read ScreenCraft’s 17 Must-Read Screenwriting Lessons from Stephen King!
Screenwriting books are a dime a dozen these days. While there are many out there — some good, some bad, others somewhere in between — these are the ones that have stood the test of time and continue to stand out amongst the rest.
William Goldman, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and more have written others that either complement the ones we’ve mentioned of theirs here, or further elaborate on the concepts and lessons introduced within. So when you’re done with these, seek the others out if your brain is still hungry.
Just remember that you can take what you like and leave the rest behind when it comes to any and all screenwriting advice found in any book, course, webinar, or seminar. Find the general industry guidelines and expectations and apply your own style and process — which may or may not be a hybrid of what you read above and beyond.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies
This Post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.